“Picture a hill half blasted into history”, and begin your journey into Benjamin Myers’s Under the Rock: a book of such brevity, of such licence and poetry, that I’ve been struggling with where to start writing about it. My introduction to Myers’s work, which spans eight novels and innumerable articles on the arts and music, came with his 2017 novel The Gallows Pole. With Yorkshire. With that book’s murderous antihero David Hartley. Under the Rock, published by Elliott & Thompson last month, is a non-fiction yomp through the mythology of modern Yorkshire, its flora and fauna, historical figures and ever changing landscape, most notably, Scout Rock, “a sheer slab of crag overlooking [the] wooded slopes and undulating, weed-tangled plateaus” of West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley. Myers lives and writes in its shadow, and invites us to scale its heights in search of more than a good story.
Under the Rock retains all of the grit, all of the rain and muck and gale-force wind of David Hartley’s 18th Century Yorkshire. But in its contemporary setting, Myers’s Yorkshire is more characterised by celebration in the same way as Simon Armitage’s All Points North. Whereas The Gallows Pole was unnervingly doom-laden, set beneath the shadow of the forthcoming industrial revolution, and what the advent of mass production meant for rural communities already struggling with low employment and a government, a crown, which they felt did not represent them, Under the Rock’s focus on the regenerative effect of nature after decades of the very industrial interference that The Gallows Pole leads us towards, springs forth a sense of hope that counters the anxiety-inducing effects of the next looming era: that of a non-EU Britain.
The irony of this is not lost, given that Calderdale had Leave majority in 2016. Myers describes Britain as “a shrinking island”, but not simply in terms of our penchant for political and economic self-destruction. More closely he explores in his writing the taking away of the land from the people, rather than the returning of it, and understands that, despite our developing and building and concreting, nature still looks through us, and we are less important, more inconsequential, than we think. Myers states, in the chapter Field Notes III, “England is an idea in constant reinvention/a concept kept fluid, an abstract Albion/of falling fences. Dying ideas. Arrogance/deceit and grave delusion. Of mud flux.”
The remoteness of the Calder Valley parallels our own remoteness from nature, and our unwillingness to see, repent for and counter the very effects of industrialisation that are causing our environment to change so dramatically. Myers’s account of the Boxing Day Floods of 2015 portrays the decency and humanity of a multi-cultural community, like many that exist without the confines of the M25, ready to help one another, but who’ve been demonised and othered by a metropolitan elite who have forgotten what it is to live so closely with a landscape able to take everything away from them with ease, and who may feel that much less disenfranchised because of their proximity to the centre of government. Myers states that the countryside “is idealised by some and dismissed as retrogressive by others, a fearful space where death is visible in tooth and claw” and counters Samuel Johnson’s “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” with “the man who fears the countryside fears himself.”
So much of Under the Rock’s narrative courses beneath its surface, in subterranean streams, in creatures domestic and wild, in people coming and going. Atemporal. Non-Linear. The moor, explains Myers’s neighbour Pauline, known as the Dragon to her family, “is where strange things happen, and have done for centuries.” Visions appear in bedrooms, “half-animal, half-human.” It is clear that the landscape here directly affects the lives of those who inhabit it. There is a strange oppression, living in the shadow of The Rock. Of the sky, which seems to lower as the intrepid walker/author climbs the moor. Myers notes the higher-than-average mortality rate of young people dwelling in the Upper Calder Valley. On Ted Hughes’s 1963 essay ‘The Rock’, Myers links the prevailing themes of the poet’s writing, that of “the violence of landscape, haunted memory, myth” with living in “the close proximity of death.”
And yet it is for the protection of this landscape that so many have sacrificed their lives. Those Yorkshiremen who returned from European battlefields in the first half of the 20th Century never knew that their PTSD, which coursed through them like heavy rainwater beneath the moor, would burst forth after returning to an England changed by war and alarmingly unprepared to care for them. What they returned to was a landscape bereft of dignity or solace or happiness. Fighting for it had been an “adventure” that quickly transformed into a nightmare of violence and death. Of trauma brought home to an idea that no longer existed. A place now inhabited by men confused in their attachment to it, whose emotional detachment was passed on to their children and suffered by their partners.
Quoting Hugh Thomson, in his essay ‘Sherwood Syndrome’, Myers deconstructs the current myth of England as a pure state of conquerors, kings and keep-calm-and-carry-on subjects, which “panders to our need for a sense of loss. There is an undercurrent of regret running through our history. A nostalgia for what could have been.” As an intensely involved exploration of the topography of the West Yorkshire landscape, it is clear that there is never just one England, but many. And these are based on a “mixture of history, mythology and etymology” the result of invasion after invasion, kingdom after kingdom, battle after battle, and the mixing and cohabiting of manifold cultures and ethnicities as a result.
This world of mud and rain and sun and rock is existent without the socio-political rhetoric of government and national identity.
What Myers is trying to locate is “a deeper truth”. Something that the landscape knows about us that we have neglected to remember and have lost in the last fifty or so years. What we consider as our measures of time, based on what we assume to be the natural life cycle of human existence – birth, adolescence, adulthood, death (and all of the calendar dates in between), are the very things that the land knows not. To requote Wendell Berry, a farmer, conservationist and writer, whose relationship with his land in Kentucky Myers compares to his own relationship with The Rock, “The hill has never observed a Christmas or an Easter or a Fourth of July. It has nothing to do with a dial or a calendar. Time is told… by the heart in the body.” The land is always shifting. In floods, thundersnow and rejuvenation. And here, in Myers’s Yorkshire, “The Rock watches over it all, a lighthouse without a light.” In this sense it is unreclaimable by a people manipulated and lied to by the state. This world of mud and rain and sun and rock is existent without the socio-political rhetoric of government and national identity. “It has no opinion on terrorism, the European Union or the latest passing cult-of-personality who may have clawed themselves into a position of power”, and will endure in spite of the shapes forced upon it by human interference.
Myers’s writing left me with a heart-wrenching desire to be there. And that doesn’t just mean Yorkshire, though I immediately bought Christopher Goddard’s Cragg Vale Coiners’ Walk map, which Myers collaborated on, when I was about halfway through Under the Rock. No, the place I am referring to is a place the author inhabits: a refound love of the countryside, and the ability to articulate that love so fiercely and so unabridged. It is a way of writing about something that so many people have tried to get away from, myself included, by moving to built up areas in search of jobs or homes or any number of opportunities that we, the British, no longer associate with the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the past that our country has become so tediously and ironically obsessed with.
Like many who might’ve grown up in or around London’s satellite towns, further, still, into the South Downs, the West Country, the Midlands, the Pennines and the Lakes, and who’ve since relocated to the sprawl of the urban, creeping as it does over fields that were once tilled and ploughed and bled and cried into by people we can barely claim to have once known, I now feel a desperate urge to reconcile myself with the land, and to find my own place in it, in the same way that Myers does in this beautifully poetic, passionate and elegiac book. Always The Rock looms. The past with it, and the future.
Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. His novels include The Gallows Pole (2017), Beastings (2014), Pig Iron (2012), which won the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize and Richard (2010), a Sunday Times book of the year. As a journalist he writes about music and the arts for publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Mojo, Caught By The River and others. He currently lives in rural Yorkshire.
Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was runner-up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in 2017. He lives in London and is writing his third. @hcagallon